Budget & Finance Opinion

Mayors Support “Parent Tricker” Law

By Diane Ravitch — June 26, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

On June 18, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously endorsed “parent trigger” laws that would let parents “seize control of low-performing public schools and fire the teachers, oust the administrators, or turn the schools over to private management.” I call it the “parent tricker” law for reasons I explain below.

Let’s be clear what the so-called parent trigger means. If 51 percent of the parents in a public school sign a petition, they can take control of the school, fire the staff, and hand the school over to a private corporation run by themselves or someone else.

Parent trigger laws are an invitation, as economist Bruce Baker put it, to mob rule.

I wonder how the mayors would react to a similar proposal to allow citizens to seize control of the public housing projects they live in or their local firehouse or police station, if they are dissatisfied with them. Perhaps they should also be permitted to take control of the sanitation trucks and give the jobs to one another.

It is frankly bizarre to pass a law allowing 51 percent of the present users of a public facility or public service to seize control and hand it off to a private corporation. The public paid for it, why should the people who use it this year claim the power to give it away? What about the rights of those who plan to attend the school in years to come? Supposing next year half of those who signed the petition are no longer parents in the school that they privatized? To me, this is akin to saying that those riding on a public bus should have the power to “seize control” and give it to a private bus company.

The national parent organization Parents Across America opposes the parent trigger as a stealth way to privatize public schools. When Florida considered parent trigger legislation this past spring, the law failed because of opposition from every Florida parent organization.

I wonder why parent trigger laws never include the right of charter school parents to “seize control” of their school and give it back to the public system.

Let’s be clear about where the “parent trigger” idea came from. It originated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the shadowy group of 2,000 right-wing state legislators that writes model legislation to promote vouchers and parent triggers and anything else they can dream up to privatize public schools.

The first parent trigger law was passed by the California legislature in 2010. It sounded innocuous: Why not let parents of a low-performing school petition to turn their school over to a charter operator? The prime mover behind the trigger bill in California was not parent organizations, however, but a then-little-known group called Parent Revolution, which is funded by the Eli Broad foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. The chief executive officer of Parent Revolution is a Beverly Hills lawyer named Ben Austin, who was appointed to the very charter-friendly state board of education by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. (When Gov. Jerry Brown was elected, he replaced several members of the board, including Austin.)

Parent Revolution sent its paid organizers into two low-income communities to gather signatures in hopes of using the parent trigger to turn their schools over to a charter operation. In both cases, the petitions led to squabbling about who signed, whether the signatures were valid, whether the parents knew what they were signing, and whether the petitions were clear about the purpose. Neither school was converted to a charter.

So, two years after passage of the parent trigger law in California, here are the results. Three other states have passed similar laws: Connecticut, Mississippi, and Texas. Not a single school in California or anywhere else has been turned into a charter.

The Los Angeles Times recently opined in an editorial that the law had been a disappointment: “With Parent Revolution started in large part by charter operators and funded by their supporters, it was assumed that the parent trigger would create a tidal wave of charter conversions,” but “charter organizations are showing no interest in trigger schools.” The reason for their lack of interest, said the Times, was that charters prefer “a lottery enrollment system, in which motivated parents sign up their children for a random drawing that might allow them a seat in the school.” Charters don’t want to “have to accept all students within the low-performing school’s attendance boundaries, just as regular public schools do. Few charter operators have been willing to work under that scenario, which tends to result in less dramatic test results for them. Furthermore, the current woeful state of school funding makes it difficult if not impossible for charter schools to provide needed resources—just as it’s difficult for traditional public schools. And turning around a deeply troubled school is harder than starting a new school with its own campus culture.”

I wonder how the mayors will react when Occupy Wall Street begins seizing control of public parks and other public facilities. No, wait, no need to wonder. We know how they reacted. They sent in riot police to clear the parks and streets.

I am trying to imagine what would happen if someone made a similar proposal in Finland or Japan or South Korea or Singapore. I think they would be an object of ridicule. People would give them funny looks. People would laugh. No one would take them seriously.

Time for a summer break. Let’s all take a deep breath and spend the summer hoping that our leaders regain some common sense.


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